There is an unhelpful stereotype often levelled at Australian Liberals, and too often the party leadership does little to change that perception.
The charge that it is a party of conservative Christian-Right ideologues content with entrenching Australia’s social fabric in some idealised 1950’s utopia is not a new one. It is usually followed by a terse assumption that pundits aligned to the Liberal Party must be prejudiced against asylum seekers and harbor latent homophobic and sexist attitudes towards any issue involving race, sexuality or gender. The branding, of course, offers a limited version of the diversity within the party, or its broad church, as we are often reminded.
However, on the issue of same-sex marriage, a failure on Tony Abbott’s part to allow a conscience vote will only confirm every negative stereotype about a party facing an increasing public relations problem with younger voters. If the Prime Minister remains obstinate, he will knowingly and deliberately contribute to the continued discrimination against same-sex couples that has endured long beyond its use-by date.
There are few arguments for the political Right to mount against same-sex marriage. Not now. Not today. In an advanced, liberal, secular society such as ours there can be little justification for the continued denial of a basic right. The party of individual empowerment should look to its philosophical foundations as a guiding light. John Stuart Mill, a giant in liberal thought, penned the principle that the basis of liberty is ‘that the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals.’ If the party is to be true to the philosophical foundations upon which was built, and if it is to exercise basic empathy for the citizens it serves, it should recognise the obvious logic in collectively supporting the pending bill.
No longer can misguided conservative arguments stand to reason, if they ever did. Any retort that marriage is a traditional bond between a man and a woman is misplaced nostalgia, and inaccurate at that. If the base point of opposition to marriage lies in tradition: traditional law, traditional customs and traditional religious practice, then the point must be stressed that history presents a problematic conundrum in that religious marriage has never remained stagnant or easily defined.
The Old Testament confirms that Abraham had three wives as well as several concubines, as did Jacob. It was not until the later years that Christianity, through the work of scholars and not the word of God, changed its attitude to polygamous marriage. Across other religions, particularly Islam, marriage cannot be defined as an institution between a man and a single woman. History teaches that the concept of marriage has evolved over time, subject to debate and interpretation. One could fairly claim that our current debate is simply another phase in the continuing development of marriage.
These points should not be lost on Liberal MPs seeking to frame the debate on a conservative front during the coming weeks. In fact, in their opposition they will ironically do the conservative cause a disservice.
Conservatives know best that as a civil society, we function most effectively when our laws and institutions build a framework that binds people together as a community. Marriage provides the social glue that unites people together under law. It establishes commitment and protects the sanctity of family. It also encourages that greatest of human qualities: love; and it works to make love stronger by uniting people in union under the eyes of their family and closest friends. Any true conservative believes in the ties that bind us. Therefore, to borrow British Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, a conservative should support same-sex marriage not in spite of being conservative, but because they are conservative.
The Liberal Party have a unique opportunity to not only pave the way for inevitable social reform in this country, but to also put paid the damaging idea that the party lacks empathy. It’s an idea that too often alienates many fair minded people. Let the record show that on this issue, the Liberal Party sat on the right side of history.